In the late Middle Ages, Yiddish theatre only existed in the form of folk plays. These plays were usually based on the story of Esther and were performed by strolling amateur groups, predominantly on Purim. The only other regular performances were carried out by badhanim, or professional wedding jesters. Jewish tradition considered theatre to be frivolous at best. Jewish law specifically prohibited women from singing in public and men from dressing as women. These circumstances of Jewish life made it impossible for theatre to develop as an institution.
It was not until the Enlightenment reached Eastern Europe in the late 1800s that the Yiddish public discovered a profound and powerful attraction to theatre in its own language. As religious prohibitions and communal authority loosened, more Yiddish speakers learned about other cultures and saw theatre in foreign languages. External pressures eased; particularly when Czar Alexander II legalized Yiddish secular press, publishing, and performance in Russia.
Modern Yiddish literature developed as intellectuals began to write novels and, eventually, plays for reading. Yiddish performers, called Broder singers–probably because the earliest of these singers started their careers in the Ukrainian city of Brod–performed their own songs and dramatic poems as café entertainment. An explosion of creativity overtook the Eastern European Jewish community.
In 1876, Avram Goldfadn wrote the first professionally performed secular Yiddish plays. After Goldfadn’s debut at the Green Tree Café in Iasi, Romania, he wrote many operettas, including The Fanatic (or, The Two Kuni-Lemls); Shmendrik; Koldunye (or, The Witch); Shulamis (or, The Daughter of Jerusalem); and Bar Kochba (or, The Last Days of Jerusalem). He also wrote their scores, creating such tunes as “Raisins and Almonds,” which entered popular culture.
By 1880, other playwrights, especially Moyshe Hurwitz and Joseph Lateiner, competed with him to write hit plays. A cadre of actors developed, many of them trained as cantors and choirboys, and they soon were joined by the first Yiddish actresses.